This topic is more serious than what I normally write about but it is one that is close to my heart as I suffer from severe anxiety and depression myself (it has taken me a long time to get to this point!)
Nearly everyone experiences nervousness, a sense of worry or sadness at times, but for some people these feelings become a part of day-to-day life and can really affect one’s daily functioning. Personally, I have experienced real bouts of anxiety and depression, and it has plagued certain friends and family members of mine for as long as I can remember. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering Mental health problems account for up to 30% of consultations with general practitioners in Europe. As troubling as anxiety and depression can be for its sufferers, sometimes it’s not easy watching a loved one go through it, while you sit on the outside, feeling somewhat helpless. I eventually realised that as someone with these issues, I had to start asking myself; What support is out there for the people on the perimeter of anxiety and depression? Who can I talk to?
So what is anxiety?
Anxiety refers to the physical, mental and behavioural changes we feel in response to a threat. These changes are sometimes referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response, because they prepare us to respond to danger. These responses are a naturally occurring part of daily life. Anxiety disorders, however, are different from ‘everyday’ anxiety in that they are more intense and persistent, to a degree which interferes with a person’s life. Such disorders share an extreme sense of fear and worry accompanied by physical symptoms which can affect all systems of the body. Anxiety disorders occur when an individual has an intense and paralysing sense of fear or a more sustained pattern of worrying when there is no real danger or threat. Alternatively, depression is categorised by feelings of sadness and grief, which most of us experience from time to time, as a normal reaction to the ups and downs of life. Clinical depression is more than just a feeling of unhappiness, or a brief period of feeling ‘down’; it is a mood disorder that may be felt as ongoing sadness or loss of pleasure and enjoyment in most facets of life. For a diagnosis of clinical depression, an individual must experience the feeling of sadness intensely and consistently for more than two weeks. Although the indicators and effects of anxiety and depression can vary greatly between individuals, there are a number of common symptoms synonymous with each condition. So what should we be looking out for?
Symptoms of anxiety may include:
- A sense of worry or impending doom
- Feelings of irritability, uneasiness and an inability to relax
- Body sensations including breathlessness, palpitations, dizziness, sweating
- An overwhelming feeling of panic •Sleep disturbances
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changed perceptions whereby, (in a panic attack), the world may seem unreal.
Symptoms of depression may include:
- Sleep disturbances
- Changes in appetite and/or body weight
- Dysphoria (a ‘bad mood’, irritability, sadness)
- Anhedonia (loss of interest in activities such as work, sport or sex)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Low self-esteem (and associated feelings; guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness)
- Suicidal thoughts or preoccupation with death.
So if you’ve detected some of these symptoms, or your loved one has had a formal diagnosis, how can you help? It’s not always easy to know how to provide help and support for someone who is experiencing anxiety or depression as we all respond to situations and talk about things differently. The following are some tips which may ease the experience for you and your loved one, or encourage them to get the help they may need.
Taking the first step towards helping someone with anxiety or depression will require some thought and care. The basics are essential; choose a mutually convenient time and place to approach the subject. Remember that this is a very personal experience, and free-flowing conversation will be aided by a level of comfort. It is important to note that sometimes when a person wants to talk to you, they may not be seeking advice, but rather just need to discuss their concerns. Being an active listener, that is, pay attention to what the other person is saying and responding accordingly, rather than talking, will help you to understand how they feel and help them to feel supported. Offer neutral comments such as “I can see how that would bother you…”.
Additionally, body language plays a vital role in helping people feel comfortable. Maintain eye contact and sit in a relaxed position to help create a contented atmosphere.
In order to help start a conversation, it’s often beneficial to use open-ended questions as they require more information and can’t be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. Some examples are “So tell me about..?” or “What’s troubling you?” Now I know this all sounds fairly simple, but keeping these tips in mind may help your loved one immensely, even when the conversation seems particularly difficult. Sometimes when a person is experiencing the symptoms of anxiety, they may find it awkward to openly discuss their thoughts and emotions. They may even get angry when asked if they’re okay. Remaining calm, firm, fair and consistent as well as in control of your own emotions may be helpful when having a difficult conversation. You may also find that just spending time and talking with your loved one helps them feel supported by showing that you care and understand.
There may also be some practical ways in which you can help. Individuals with anxiety and/or depression may be afraid or overwhelmed at the thought of seeking help and support. The type and amount of help that families and friends can provide depends on the relationship with the individual experiencing the issue. If the person doesn’t appear ready or willing to seek and receive help, it can be a very challenging time for those involved. Below are some Do’s and Don’ts for helping a person experiencing anxiety and/or depression.
DO’s – Or things that may allow you to help someone
- Spend time talking about their experiences
- Indicate that you’ve noticed a change in their behaviour / emotions / feelings
- Let them know you’re there to listen without being judgmental
- Highlight the option of seeing a doctor or health professional
- Recommend and/or assist them to make an appointment
- Go with the person to the doctor or health professional
- Check in with them – asking how their appointment went
- Assist them in finding information about anxiety or depression
- Talk openly about their feelings
- Encourage them to try to get enough sleep, exercise and to eat well
- Encourage them to use self-help strategies (e.g. breathing exercises)
- Encourage them to face their fears with support from their doctor / psychologist
- Contact a doctor or hospital, if they become a threat to themselves or others
DON’Ts – Or things that can be unhelpful
- Pressure them to “just relax” or “calm down”
- Stay away or avoid the person
- Pressure them to manage how they’re feeling with drugs or alcohol
- Assume that you can make them feel less anxious on your own
- Help them avoid situations that make them feel anxious
- Assume the problem will just go away
At times, caring for a person with anxiety or depression can be difficult, and it’s not unusual for a carer to experience anger, guilt or fear. The following are some practical tips that can help carers cope and look after themselves. Firstly, learning about anxiety or depression can help you to understand why a person with the illness/condition/experience acts in a certain way. This acquired knowledge may help you to separate the illness from the affected individual, and realise that their mood, behaviour and reactions are not necessarily directed at any person in particular. Secondly, it is important for family members and friends to avoid ‘burnout’ by looking after themselves as well as their loved ones. Make sure you spend time doing things you enjoy. This will help to ease tension, limit the stress of the situation, and ultimately make you a more balanced support for your loved one.
For me personally I have found the headspace app and exercising the best way for me to deal with the anxiety. I hold my hands up that I struggle to talk to people about it but I know that I have an amazing family and a great group of friends that I know will be there when I am ready to talk.
In summary, anxiety and depression are experienced by nearly everyone, to some degree, in their lifetime. Whether these issues are direct or indirect occurrences of one’s life, they can become a salient part of our day to day living. As someone with the illness knowing that I have a support network there if I needed them has helped greatly. For those that are not ready to share with friends and family, there are charities (Aware) and professionals whose job it is to help. Please don’t face this on your own. There are people out there who want to help and can help.